When we reach out for support or to lessen a burden, we hear what we want to hear. What we’re ready to hear, or what we need to hear to be ok. To feel settled in the moment. We unconsciously sift through the facts and manipulate and select those that fit our story. The version that gives us relief and comfort. I did that for years.
We often see this editing and rationalizing in others. Thankfully, we rarely see it in ourselves. It would be too much. At its finest, denial is a shock absorber. At its most useful, it gives us time to prepare for the truth. At its most powerful, it becomes dangerous and keeps us stuck.
I lived in it for years as I “managed” my life and drank alcoholically. It created the stories that got me out of bed in the morning. It enabled me to have a career, have a family, have a marriage, run a marathon and build a vegetable garden. Until I couldn’t get out of bed. Until the denial created intolerable physical pain. Until the story didn’t work to comfort me. I once heard it said that change happens at the speed of pain. That was true for me.
I have also witnessed the phenomena of denial in my coaching practice and personal relationships. We don’t wake up in the morning, feeling good and decide we need to change. Decide we need to end a relationship. Decide we need to leave our job. Decide we have a mental health issue. Instead, we tell ourselves the normalized story. The comfortable vignette. Maybe even the fantasyland version. Often, the listener and observer can sense the denial. They have heard a version of the story many times. Sometimes, listening is all the support needed. Sometimes, truth–saying is needed. Sometimes, you need to ask yourself if the relationship is worth the risk of challenging the storyline. You only know for sure by engaging.
It’s usually only in retrospect that we recognize our stories were laced with denial and rationalization. Only after we’ve left an unhealthy relationship. Or exited from a toxic work environment. Or confronted a terrifying truth. We acted out of pain, and only when we felt well again did the full extent of the truth emerge. We go through the process of divesting from the story. We take off the glasses, the ones with the wrong prescription. The lenses that made things blurry, though the edges may have had a pink hue. Perspective is the gift of honest hindsight.
It seems to me that the process of engaging in a supportive role brings with it responsibility. For me, it provides teachable moments. When to listen and indulge in silence. When to speak the truth, usually with the hope that the denial is frail. That the truth won’t be overwhelming and too much to bear. When to hold the space and pray.
I am also reminded of the challenge of being powerless, and landing in acceptance. I know this is the language of recovery. It is also the language of life. Concepts I struggle to practice on a daily basis. For me, for others, we reach out, we receive, we retreat. Denial is a warm blanket until we’re too hot and it becomes too itchy. I can’t make it too hot and itchy for someone else. And I must not lay there sweating and scratching.
There is a strange sense of empowerment in acceptance. In owning your emotions and your frailties. In owning the path from denial to honesty. In owning your powerlessness over others.
At least, that has been my experience.